China's government ordered a halt Thursday to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, as a group of leading scientists declared that it's still too soon to try to make permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations.
In a 30-minute talk Wednesday at a gene editing summit in Hong Kong, He Jiankui of South University of Science and Technology of China, in Shenzhen, laid out the steps he took to perform the first-ever editing of the human germline-cells that are passed on by reproduction. "I feel proudest, because they had lost hope for life", He said, when challenged by several peers at the conference (live stream below).
He said there had been "another potential pregnancy" involving a second couple, but when questioned further agreed it had been a chemical pregnancy - a term referring to a very early miscarriage.
It was unclear whether the pregnancy had ended or not.
"It's not unreasonable to expect the scientific community" to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.
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"This study has been submitted to a scientific journal for review", he said.
Couples were recruited through a Beijing based AIDS advocacy group: all male participants in his project had HIV and all of the women did not, but the editing was not aimed at preventing the risk of transmission, as males had infection deeply suppressed and there are other ways to keep their infection from infecting offspring other than altering genes: couples affected by HIV were offered a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate of infection. Chinese scientists have expressed disapproval of Jiankui's research, stating that the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 tool is a "huge blow" to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research.
The revelation shone a light on a new technology called CRISPR-Cas9, a tool that allows researchers to replace faulty genes with new ones, but research is not fully clear on its effect on humans. Others have expressed concern for both the safety of the human gene pool and the recently born infants, female twins, long-term health.
On Sunday, Chinese scientist Jiankui He said he had successfully edited the genes of twin girls, releasing a recorded statement on YouTube about the breakthrough.
Mr He said: "They need this protection since a vaccine is not available".
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Eight volunteer couples - HIV-positive fathers and HIV-negative mothers - signed up to He's trial, with one dropping out before it was put on hold. There is general agreement that at present these risks outweigh any potential benefits, and more basic research is needed before proceeding. It does not mention that such an experiment has never been done before.
"I don't think it has been a transparent process. We only found out about it after it happened, and after the children were born", Baltimore said on stage. Indeed, just within the last two years another set of renegade scientists flaunted established norms to bring about the first "three-parent IVF" babies; there was tremendous outcry, but the procedure now seems to be continuing in the relatively lax regulatory environment of Ukraine.
The conference, which is attended by leaders in the fields of genetics and ethics as well as policy-makers, is expected to issue a statement on the development during its closing session Thursday.
Shenzhen's Health and Family Planning Commission has directed the city's medical expert committee to investigate He's activities.
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